Towards the end of the 1960s, the civil rights movement led by blacks was extending its reach into discussions about curricular changes, places of refuge and solidarity for students, increasing minority faculty, and confronting institutionalized racism on predominantly white campuses. The members of the Afro-American Society at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) exemplified that trend. Early in 1969, there were discussions about renaming the Key Hole Room in the student union "The Afro-American Cultural Center." When this proposal was accepted, controversy erupted over the use of a public building for a specific group. By the fall of 1969, the Afro-American Society presented a list of demands to the Committee on University Responsibility in Minority Group Relations as well as to Vice President William C. Lang. Although not part of the initial demands, the idea of a separate facility emerged as a prominent component of the black students' insistence upon significant improvements in minority representation among the faculty, staff, student body, and curriculum as well as increased efforts in minority recruitment and retention and in financial aid.
Thus, the idea of a "cultural house" was born. It was taken to the Board of Regents' meeting in March of 1970; at that meeting, action on the proposal did not occur. This delay sparked a decision by the black students to stage a sit-in at the home of James William Maucker, President of UNI. The nine students that entered Maucker's residence demanded the President make the home of Vice President Lang into the cultural house when the latter vacated the premises upon his retirement in June. When Maucker did not take any action, the nine students remained in his home overnight and they were joined by twenty-two others (10 blacks and 12 whites) the next day. Six black students and one white student were suspended for their leadership in the sit-in at the Maucker home: Byron Washington, Tony Stevens, Joe Sailor, Terry Pearson (now Stevens), Palmer Byrd, Ann Bachman (now Burke), and Charles Dalton, Jr. These individuals have since become known as the UNI-Seven. Protests erupted in relation to the disciplinary hearings, and participants, from both on and off-campus, were monitored by the police-resulting in the sentencing of twenty-eight demonstrators to seven days in the county jail.
After much deliberation, the members of the Board of Regents supported by a vote of five-to-three the proposal that President Maucker presented for transforming Lang's home into the Ethnic Minority Cultural and Educational Center at the June meeting. The Ethnic Minorities Cultural and Educational Center (EMCEC) held an open house on Sunday, February 21, 1971, and officially started on Tuesday, February 23. Initially under the oversight of the director of the Educational Opportunity Program and, subsequently, the Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs, the EMCEC moved under the aegis of the Vice President for Educational and Student Services in 1991. During the academic year of 1997-1998, the EMCEC changed its name to the Center for Multicultural Education.